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February 2009

The World Has Fallen, and So Have I

Huge.43.217374 I grew up in a neighborhood that was like a lot of other neighborhoods, when the boxes we lived in were distinguished only by the names on the mailboxes.  It was a place where hard-working Americans circled the wagons to protect themselves from the outside world.  Our lives were made up of little moments, all delicately intertwined.  Maybe we weren’t aware of it then, amid the school paper drives and the scalloped potatoes and the sounds of the neighbors’ children playing, but life was rich there in our small sanctuary, and precious, and the only thing that could change that was death.

(The voice of narrator Kevin Arnold, from the ABC TV Series, The Wonder Years)

When I was young kids owned the neighborhood.  With little regard for property boundaries, we moved through backyards, over fences, played ball in the street or in our neighbor’s yard, and went in and out of our friends’ houses, sometimes without knocking.  In the Summer, doors were unlocked and often open, as were windows, and the sounds of families eating dinner, arguing, watching Gilligan’s Island, or listening to Tom Jones (for adults) or Jefferson Airplane (for teens) wafted out of the doors and windows and settled into our souls.  We had dominion over all things, and they were very good.  Our lives were a succession of little moments that left an indelible mark on our personalities, which somehow became part of who we became.

I threw a rock through Georgie’s window, not from spite but for adventure, listening to it crack, the glass shattering in the still air.  I just stood there.  I hid in my room, my conscience pricked, until my mother came for me.  I had to apologize to Georgie’s Mom, mumbling “sorry” while I stared down at my bare feet.  Later, I watched my Dad fix her window, though I never remember him chastising me over it.

When I was three, my mother brought my little sister home from the hospital, pulling up to the curb, the door opening and my mother climbing out with a small pink infant wrapped in a blanket.  I don’t recall a single thing that interested me about her.  I do remember that when my mother left me outside for moment with her in a stroller, I took the brake off and watched the stroller careen down the hill toward the street as my mother ran out of the front door.  My sister survived.  I did too, if barely.

My older sister bought the “Meet the Beatles” album when I was six and lay in front of our stereo listening to it for hours.  I looked at the picture of them on the album cover, four “moptops.”  I didn’t see what the big deal was.  Nor was I big on her white Nancy Sinatra “go-go” boots she purchased, she and her friend singing “These boots are made for walking, and one of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you” all the way to school sprawled in the backseat, feet hanging out the windows as we navigated the streets of our neighborhood.

We ran through the neighborhood playing secret agent, capture the flag, softball, as familiar with every tree, backyard, sandbox, creek, and street corner as I am with my own reflection in the mirror.  We made forts in the woods, caught tadpoles in the creek, waded under the bridge, climbed trees, went night swimming after hours in the neighborhood pool, and walked streets under moonlight envisioning ourselves as super heroes, knowing every house, every family, every person who lived there.  It was magical, that time, and though the world was in the grips of racial turmoil and war, that was beyond the horizon for me.  The world ended at the edge of my neighborhood, the world I knew.

When I was seven, I fell asleep in my room, only to wake and see my aunt at my door teary-eyed, advising me that my uncle had died.  It was my first encounter with death.  For a while after that point, I was afraid to go to sleep, concerned that someone would die while I slept, as if by being awake I could stop it.  That’s how a child’s mind reasons.  I recovered, but I don’t think I ever recovered the sense that life was a playground, Edenic, where nothing bad or at least nothing worse than a scraped knee would happen.  The world had fallen, and so had I.

As Christians we believe in the Fall, that cataclysmic moment when evil entered a good Creation and after which our first parents realized they were naked, when it dawned on them that they had fallen and all Creation along with them.  But it’s one thing to know this and another to experience it.  When my uncle died, I knew something was terribly wrong with the world, that the magical place I enjoyed as a child, a world free of suffering and pain, limitless with opportunity, and full of adventure, had changed.  I realized that I too would meet the same fate as my uncle.  Everyday from then on confirmed what I first sensed then:  that everything was bent and broken, that we were lost.

It was later that I realized that Christ was at work undoing the Fall’s damage, actually bringing healing to a world gone wrong.  I see evidence of that everywhere even as I see the continuing effects of the Fall.  And yet the world seems alien to me, and I feel estranged, like a man away from Home.  I guess I am.  I want to feel that same feeling of security and peace and play that I had in my neighborhood as a boy.  I want to run and not grow weary.  I want to climb to the high places and look out on my Home, the neighborhood I know.  One day I will.  



"Nature to a saint is sacramental. If we are children of God, we have a tremendous treasure in Nature. In every wind that blows, in every night and day of the year, in every sign of the sky, in every blossoming and withering of the earth, there is a real coming of God to us if we will simply use our starved imagination to realize it." (Oswald Chambers, from My Utmost for His Highest, Feb. 10th)

Light is one of the most elemental properties of nature, and yet it is also the one we take most for granted. When I enter a room, I immediately have a like or dislike of the setting, often inarticulable, and yet I suspect what I am often reacting to is the lighting of the room. I may say ambience, yet I often mean lighting. First light is different from last light, dawn from sunset. A room lit by a naked overhead bulb is far less inviting and warm, however bright, than one lit by the warm yet muted glow of lamps. We all consider ourselves to look better in some light than in other light. Light must be shed on a subject, before we understand it. Light inhabits our daily vocabulary, shades our perception of reality, divides our day into night and day, activity and sleep, and is the foundation of life itself. Light enables us to see, to find, and to observe.

Architect Louis Kahn said that "All material in nature, the mountains and the streams and the air and we, are made of Light which has been spent, and this crumpled mass called material casts a shadow, and the shadow belongs to Light". While I do not entirely understand Kahn's maxim, I appreciate his sentiment: everything is affected by light, is shadowed by light.

That's why the ubiquity of light in Scripture is not surprising. It's there in the beginning of all things and at the end of all things. God said "Let there be light," (Gen. 1:3), light being His first creation after making the basic stuff of heaven and earth, and at the end of time, when there is a new heaven and earth, we are reminded that for those blessed dwellers "[t]here will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light" (Rev. 22:5).

In some not entirely explicable way, God is bound up with light. Though Scripture says light is God's creation, it also leads one to believe that light emanates from God Himself, is in some way part of the essence of who God is. "God is light; in him there is no darkness at all," says the Apostle John (1 Jn. 1:5), and we know that he is not simply describing a physical property but the very character of God: wholly good, the source of all revelation, the One by Whom we see all things. As the Psalmist says , "in your light we see light" (Ps. 36:9).

Like every created thing, light points beyond itself and represents, as Oswald Chambers has said, "a real coming of God to us if we will simply use our starved imagination to realize it." New light filtered through my window shades reminds me that "his compassions never fail," that "they are new every morning" (Lam. 3:23). The obscurity of both object and thought in darkness reminds me that His light --- His enlightenment --- is necessary for me to see clearly, to understand the world from His perspective, to know what is true. There is no revelation without light. Nor would we know contrast without light. As Arlo Guthrie said once, "There's no light without a dark to stick it in." Light --- so common, so taken for granted --- is all about God, a constant reminder of His presence, the antithesis of all that is dark and evil.

So next time you wake to light, remember that God is coming to you. Just open your eyes.

Reverie on My Back Pages


Flip, flip. Now there's a lifesaver. Brad Bulla. Meanest kid in ninth grade, always in a fight, always getting kicked out of school. However, he liked me for some reason. Ever since 5th grade glee club (where there was not so much glee), when he and I were the only two boys left in the soprano section, he was my shadowy protector. Because of Brad, no one messed with me. Not that we hung out together, because he didn't hang with anyone, but I guess you could say he was my friend. Yeah, he's probably in prison somewhere, serving out time for armed bank robbery.

Flip, flip. Cynthia Jones. I remember her. She had a sneeze that would bring a class to a standstill, kind of like a cross between a sneeze and a scream and a laugh, all at the same time. When she let go, there would be a couple seconds of dead silence, presumably while everyone would draw in breath, followed by peels of laughter. She was probably damaged for life by all the attention. But Cynthia had a good sense of humor, even laughing at herself.

Flip, flip. Now there's an interesting guy. David Raven. It's likely that David is rich and famous somewhere in America, I mused. However, in his fading picture in my high school yearbook he looked like a kinder, gentler Charles Manson, his dark eyelashes and long hair suggesting an older soul in his young body. As I recall, he was a sweet guy, never cross, always willing to share his drugs (though I never took him up on it). He made appearances in class, but mostly I saw him wandering the halls, shuffling along in his ragged jeans, hip and cool but never condescending. He was the only ninth-grader I knew who was reading Karl Marx's Das Kapital or Robrt Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance , or who listened to jazz played by the likes of Chick Corea. One day in art class David told us he was "expanding his cosmic consciousness," and we had no idea what he was talking about. He was operating on another plane of existence while we languished in the mundane. He disappeared after that year. I think he moved.

Flip, flip. What's this? There's a hole in the page, a neatly cut square right between Drew Slater and Abby Turner. Hmm. An enemy? An old girlfriend who dropped me? There was some girl in Spanish class. . . what was her name? I can't remember.

Flip, flip. Regina Vance. She wrote beside her headshot in neat letters, "For a white dude you're not bad." Hmm.

Flip, flip. Linda Wagoner. Oh. I don't want to talk about her.

Flip, flip. For the life of me I can't remember most of these faces, boys with pimples and longish unkempt hair or buzz cuts (depending on parents' tolerance) staring out at me, girls with long stringy hair and impish smiles. It's not an attractive age. Nope, neither Alan Weatherspoon, Chuck Whitley, or Diane Whitson ring a bell. I take my finger and run it along every row, searching for a familiar face, but there's no one --- no one, that is, except for a youthful me, a faint smile on my face, pained almost, as if it's a prison mug shot. Just for a moment, I muse on what the state of my mind would have been then, what preoccupied me, how small my world was, how seemingly monumental were my problems and deeply important was my appearance.

Then I close my yearbook, reverie over.

The Proper Place of Place

Medium.21.106191We were obviously leaving this house, looking around to be sure we gathered up the last of our belongings, taking last, longing looks at the home we knew, the rooms we wandered, remembering how our children had grown, the wall-marks that signified paint marred by some game or indiscretion. When we closed the door for the last time and walked to the street, I looked back at the double upstairs windows which looked out from the playroom where we had spent many happy times. As I turned to go, following my wife and two children, I noticed the street, the other homes, the curb we sat on, the circles we played in, as if I had never seen them before.

When we reached the train station, I realized I had forgotten something --- something important. "I'll be back soon," I said, plenty of time to make it home and back before the train left the station, and I walked briskly back to my house. Only I couldn't find it. I walked to the dead-end of the road, wondering how I had missed it. Turning, I walked back. It was gone. In its place --- in fact, in the place of many other homes --- were the foundations and walls of new office buildings. The landscape had changed in just the few minutes I had been gone! I ran back and forth down the street, searching for our home, looking for those double upstairs windows. But everything had changed, so much so that I could no longer even locate the land on which our home had stood, so reshaped was the very earth we lived on all those years. I returned to the train station, panicked, only to see that my wife already knew. I looked up to see my house being carried down the street on the bed of a wide trailer, broken in two halves, cut off from its place. Then I woke up.

It's easy to be sentimental about places and things. Being emotional or nostalgic about such comes easy to me, and perhaps this recent dream was provoked by my having moved my aging mother from her home to assisted living this past week. The places and things we leave behind are invested with part of us, and so when we leave there is loss. Maybe there are things best left behind. The escaping Israelites were told to leave behind the idols of Egypt. Lot's wife was told not to look back (that is, to be nostalgic) about Sodom. Fail. And yet we leave behind many good things. Memories of playing with our kids in a yard, being at a table for dinner, or playing games with friends in the den do not die. We forever associate them with a place and a time, and while we cannot duplicate them, we can remember and let that remembrance invest our new place, not forever replaying the old but forever letting the old create new meaning in the present.

My mother doesn't like assisted living. She doesn't like her new place. She wants to go home. She longs for the familiar rooms and things so long lived with. She wants things to be the way they were, and yet they can't. Home? If I could, I'd explain to her by way of reminding myself that home is the rock-solid present, shaped by and invested with the spirit of what we left behind, and lived out in the promise of a future, better Home --- a new place of rock and sky and ocean and forest and houses fit to who we are. All the homes we ever had point ahead to the one we long for.

In his study of what the Bible says about our future home, Heaven, Randy Alcorn reminds us of the physicality of heaven, reminding us that it is made of the same stuff of earth, that it will be a familiar and very tangible place to us, echoing with redeemed remembrances of what we left behind. He says that "because we've already lived on earth, it will seem from the first that we're coming home. Because we once lived on Earth, the New Earth will strike us as very familiar." We see this place or these places we love as shadows of places we long for. That makes it worth settling in, makes it worth loving place.

I don't want my mother to forget where she has been, all the places she has lived. Remembering is good. But I hope she will look around, that she will settle in, and I hope she will look ahead to her Home to come. That's the stuff of dreams.